Charlie Hore discusses why rs21 members in Unison are supporting John Burgess in the upcoming Unison General Secretary election and the battles that the union faces.
This autumn Unison will hold an election for its General Secretary. This is the highest position in the union, and the only directly elected national official, so the five-yearly elections are a time for debate about Unison’s recent record and future direction.
Big battles – but also big defeats
The last five years have seen massive mobilisations over public sector pensions – the November 30 2011 strike by some 30 public sector unions was Unison’s biggest ever strike, and the biggest strike ever in Britain of women workers – followed almost immediately by the humiliating collapse of the campaign as Unison and the GMB accepted the government’s proposals and other unions, notably Unite, failed to call effective action.
That defeat, combined with increasing aggression from both government and public sector employers, has meant that Unison has spent most of the last five years on the defensive. But that has also meant a much larger number of local disputes, and an increased willingness on the part of the national union to sanction strike action. This included national strikes last year over pay in local government, health, and higher education, all of which were followed by climb-downs, with planned later strikes called off in return for essentially nothing.
It also included numerous local disputes, including long-running campaigns in Barnet Council, at London Metropolitan University, among Care UK social care workers in south Yorkshire and the east Midlands, and most recently the all-out strike by Glasgow Council homelessness workers. While many of these have slowed down or derailed attacks, none have won outright, and at London Met there is now a campaign to fight the redundancy imposed on the branch secretary.
Anger among the activists
Among UNISON activists at least, there is a growing anger at the leadership’s failure to deliver either successes or a strategy for winning. This was shown in local government when branches forced a special service group conference this year, which voted to reject the 2014 pay settlement and to reopen the pay negotiations. It was also shown in the results of the National Executive Council (NEC) ballot, where left critics of the leadership got 25 places out of 66, up from 19 on the previous NEC.
But alongside that anger, there’s a disconnection between activists and the wider membership. So the national officials were able to do effectively smother the local government conference decision without any real opposition. And in the NEC election, the best turnout was just 8% (in higher education), with under 5% of members voting in several sections. 22 of the 66 were elected unopposed, including six of the left critics.
And while the past five years have been bad, Unison now faces an even greater threat. The government’s plans to end membership payments going through employer’s payrolls has the potential to greatly reduce union membership in Unison’s core areas unless there is a serious campaign to get stewards and activists reconnecting with members.
The election thus comes at a critical time for the union. There is an urgent need for a debate about future direction and strategy – and it seems likely that there will more space for that than in previous elections.
The monolith cracks
Unison is unusual in having a particularly monolithic full-time machine with significant support from lay activists. It’s wrong to simply call this a right-wing machine – Unison supported Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader, has excellent international policies (pro-BDS on Palestine, for instance) and environmental policies (anti-fracking, anti-nuclear power), and is very good on some issues of oppression, in particular LGBT and anti-racism, with very hard positions in defence of multi-culturalism and migration rights.
But when it comes to taking on employers the machine frustrates activists as often as it supports them, and under the Blair governments it cosied up to New Labour and in the process repeatedly sold members short, and launched a number of witch-hunts against left critics.
The monolith, and its lay support, have now cracked. Every previous election has seen just one full-time official take on a usually divided oppositional left. This time there are at least two full-time official candidates. The current General Secretary, Dave Prentis, is standing again, and being opposed by the head of local government Heather Wakefield.
Quite how she will campaign against Prentis isn’t yet clear. She is seen as being to his left, but bears much of the responsibility for the pension and pay defeats. There are long-standing credible rumours of personal animosity as detailed in this anonymous, but well-informed, blog .
The oppositional left will have at least two, and possibly three candidates. The first to declare was Roger Banister, secretary of Knowsley Council Unison, NEC member and long-standing Socialist Party (SP) member. He has stood in the last three General Secretary elections, each time beating other oppositional left candidates, and he makes his pitch here. But while it is true that he has an excellent record of militancy, his will be a Socialist Party campaign, with little or no involvement from other parts of the left. The SP have the advantages of consistency – what you see is what you get, and they have been doing the same thing for a long time. But the campaign will be about building the SP, not building a pluralistic fighting left in Unison.
Another declared candidate is Hayley Garner, secretary of Southampton City Unison, whose pitch is here. While she has a good reputation as a militant, her candidacy seems to have come out of the blue, mainly backed by some of those who split away from UNISON’s United Left because of the SWP’s role in that group. That split hasn’t developed into a larger group of activists, and it seems a far too narrow base on which to run a national campaign. Additionally, while the idea of a female general secretary for a mostly female union is an excellent one, it’s also Heather Wakefield’s platform. Her support is likely to be squeezed out both by Wakefield and by the much more widely-supported John Burgess.
John Burgess and building a fighting left
John is a long-standing left activist and secretary of the Barnet Council branch, which has been waging a sustained battle against Barnet Council’s privatisation plans for over five years now – it is Unison’s longest-running dispute and the most high-profile one. Both personally and politically, he is something of a Jeremy Corbyn figure – a unifying figure on the left, widely respected for his integrity and commitment, and with an ability to win a broader level outside the ranks of existing activists.
The list of supporters on his blog includes activists from across the oppositional left and beyond, representing a wide range of left opinion. It also includes the officers of Manchester City Unison branch, who have long been some of the most active lay supporters of the current leadership. The branch was highly critical of both Dave Prentis and Heather Wakefield in last year’s local government pay campaign, and their support for John opens up the prospect of a wider realignment. He has also just won a nomination from Newcastle City branch, again long seen as key Prentis supporters.
And at the last NEC meeting he gained 16 votes for his nomination, compared to four for Roger Bannister’s and just one for Hayley Garner.
His is thus the campaign most likely to bring together an activist base out of which something more long-lasting can be built, and rs21 members in Unison will be playing a full part in his campaign and in rebuilding the left afterwards.
Can he win? Can the machine be beaten? With two competing candidates from the bureaucracy, there has never been a better opportunity – and the political impact from the Jeremy Corbyn campaign makes this a particularly good time for the left to be mounting challenges. What the Corbyn campaign has shown is that there is a real appetite for change far outside the ranks of the organised left. The left as a whole has discovered a sense of purpose and confidence that can be used to drive John’s campaign forwards, to promote key arguments about greater rank and file involvement and control, and to begin building a network of activists who can support each other in struggle, whoever wins the election.
Some key dates:
Nominations are open now, and close at 5pm on Friday 9 October. Candidates must be nominated by at least two national service group executives, or by at least two regional councils, or at least 25 UNISON branches.
Ballot papers will be sent out from Monday 9 November, and the ballot closes at 5pm on Friday 4 December.
The result will be announced on Thursday 17 December.